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Gallery Text

John Singleton Copley was among the most prominent portraitists in colonial Boston. In 1766, he was commissioned to paint three portraits of the Boylston family, which had amassed a fortune sending enslaved Africans and foreign goods to the Americas. Like many of his Boston portraits, Copley’s likenesses are a blend of fact and fiction. He combined detailed renderings of the sitters’ faces and garments with invented settings to convey the family’s wealth and status.

Copley portrayed the Boylstons in extravagant imported clothing. Sarah (1696–1774), seen in the portrait nearby, wears a sumptuous satin dress, while her sons are draped in richly textured dressing gowns, or “banyans,” exotic attire that conveyed their cosmopolitan identity and global power. Other elements in the portraits, like the large ledgers and the ship in this portrait of Nicholas (1716–1771), suggest the family’s mercantile identity without showing what—or whom— they traded.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
John Singleton Copley, American (Boston, MA 1738 - 1815 London, England)
Mrs. Thomas (Sarah Morecock) Boylston (1696 - 1774)
Sarah Morecock Boylston (Mrs. Thomas Boylston) (1696-1774)
Work Type
Creation Place: North America, United States, Massachusetts, Boston
Persistent Link
Level 2, Room 2240, European and American Art, 17th–19th century, The Arts in the Eighteenth–Century Atlantic World
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Physical Descriptions
Oil on canvas
129.5 x 102 cm (51 x 40 3/16 in.)
framed: 146.1 x 120 x 10.2 cm (57 1/2 x 47 1/4 x 4 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: r.c.: Jno. S: Copley/pinx 1766
Moses Gill (sitter's son-in-law); to the sitter's grandson, Ward Nicholas Boylston; bequest; to Harvard College, 1828.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Ward Nicholas Boylston to Harvard College, 1828
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

Catalogue of the Second Exhibition of Paintings in the Athenaeum Gallery, exh. cat., Boston Athenaeum (Boston, MA, 1828), cat. 44

Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life, Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of American Artists, Preceded by an Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of Art in America, Putnam (New York, NY, 1867), p. 76

Augustus Thorndyke Perkins, A Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, J. R. Osgood & Company (Boston, MA, 1873), pp. 38-39

Susan Nichols Carter, "Art at the Exhibition", Appleton's Journal (1876), vol. 15, pp. 724-746, p. 726

Susan Nichols Carter, "Paintings at the Centennial Exhibition", Art Journal (1876), vol. 2. pp. 283-285, p. 284

Clarence Cook, "The Fine Art Department. American Pictures: Second Notice", New York Daily Tribune (June 3, 1876), p. 2, p. 2

"The Fine Arts: United States Section--Painting in Oil", Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (Philadelphia, PA, June 23, 1876), p. 1, p. 1

United States Centennial Commission, International Exhibition, 1876, Official Catalogue, Art Gallery and Annexes, exh. cat., John R. Nagle & Co. (Philadelphia, PA, 1876), p. 19, cat. 83

Boston Art Club, Massachusetts Centennial Art Exhibition, exh. cat. (Boston, MA, 1876), n.p.

William Howe Downes, "Boston Painters and Paintings, Part I: The Pre-Copleyites, Copley, Trumbull", The Atlantic Monthly (Boston, MA, July 1888), vol. 62 no. 369, pp. 89-98., p. 93

William Garrott Brown, A List of Portraits in the Various Buildings of Harvard University, Harvard University Library (Cambridge, MA, 1898), p. 9

Frank William Bayley, A Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley, The Garden Press, W. B. Libby (Boston, MA, 1910), p. 16

Frank William Bayley, The Life and Works of John Singleton Copley: Founded on the Work of Augustus Thorndike Perkins, The Taylor Press (Boston, MA, 1915), p. 65

Fogg Art Museum Handbook, Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1927), ill. p. 57

Cuthbert Lee, Early American Portrait Painters: The Fourteen Principal Earliest Native-born Painters, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT, 1929), p. 74

Theodore Bolton and Henry Lorin Binsse, "John Singleton Copley", The Antiquarian (New York, NY, December 1930), pp. 116-118., p. 116

Edward Alden Jewell, "In the Realm of Art: Tribute to an Early Painter", The New York Times (December 27, 1936), p. 9, ill.

Fogg Art Museum Handbook, Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1936), ill. p. 108

Laura M. Huntsinger, Harvard Portraits: A Catalogue of Portrait Paintings at Harvard University, ed. Alan Burroughs, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1936), pp. 25-26

Paintings of John Singleton Copley, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, 1936), p. 7, pl. 19

John Singleton Copley, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA, 1938), p. 20

Barbara N. Parker and Anne Bolling Wheeler, John Singleton Copley: American Portraits in Oil, Pastel and Miniature, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA, 1938), p. 47, pl. 69

Historical Records Survey, Division of Professional and Service Projects, Works Progress Administration, American Portraits, 1620-1825, found in Massachusetts, Volumes 1 and 2, Historical Records Survey (Boston, MA, 1939), p. 46, cat. 249

Survey of American Painting, exh. cat., Carnegie Institute (Pittsburgh, PA, 1940), cat. 64

Oskar Hagen, The Birth of the American Tradition in Art, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York, NY, 1940), pp. 92-93, 104-105, 134, pl. 5

Barbara N. Parker, "Portraits of the Goldthwait Family of Boston", Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts (June 1941), vol. 39, no. 233, pp. 40-44, p. 43

James Truslow Adams, Album of American History, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York, NY, 1944), ill. p. 305

American Painting from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, exh. cat., Tate Britain (London, 1946), p. 11, ill. opp. p. 10

Fifteen Fine Paintings, exh. cat., Springfield Museum of Fine Arts (Springfield, MA, 1948), n.p., ill.

From Colony to Nation: Exhibition of American Painting, Silver, and Architecture from 1650 to the War of 1812, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL, 1949), pp. 6, 31, ill. p. 30

Louisa Dresser, Likeness of America 1680-1820, exh. cat., Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs (Colorado Springs, 1949), n.p., pl. 9

Virgil Barker, "Copley's American Portraits", Magazine of Art (March 1950), pp. 83-88, p. 88

Virgil Barker, American Painting: History and Interpretation, The Macmillan Company (New York, 1950), p. 144-147, pl. 22

Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages, ed. Sumner McK. Crosby, Harcourt, Brace and Co. (New York, NY, 1959), fig. 11-25, p. 437

Four Boston Masters, exh. cat., Jewett Arts Center (Wellesley, MA, 1959), p. 66

Daniel M. Mendelowitz, A History of American Art, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (New York, NY, 1960), pp. 175-176, fig. 6-21

Charles Merrill Mount, "A Hidden Treasure in Britain, Part II: John Singleton Copley, Art Quarterly (Spring 1961), vol 24, pp. 33-51, p. 43

H.C. Warwick and Henry C. Pitz, Early American Dress, B. Blom (New York, NY, 1965), pl. 78

John Singleton Copley, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C, 1965), pp. 44, 49, cat. 30, color pl. IV

Jules David Prown, John Singleton Copley, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1966), vol. 1, pp. 54-55, 66, 76, 78, 210, pl. 178

Louis B. Wright, The Arts in America: The Colonial Period, Charles Scribner & Sons (New York, NY, 1966), p. 202, pl. 137

Elizabeth Ripley, Copley: A Biography, J. B. Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA, 1967), pp. 26-27, ill.

Seventy-Five Masterworks, exh. cat., Portland Art Museum (Portland, OR, 1967), p. 24

The New International Illustrated Encyclopedia of Art, Greystone Press (New York, NY, 1967), vol. VI, p. 1145

Daniel M. Mendelowitz, A History of American Art, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (New York, NY, 1970), p. 120, pl. 5

Alfred V. Frankenstein, The World of Copley: 1738-1815, Time-Life Books (New York, NY, 1970), p. 77, ill.

Nathan Knobler, The Visual Dialogue: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Art, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (New York, NY, 1971), pp. 10, 13, fig. 9

Louise Todd Ambler and Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, "American Painting at Harvard", Antiques (New York, NY, November 1972), vol. 102, no. 5, pp. 876-883, pp. 876-877, fig. 2

Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, Peter G. Huenink, Earl A. Powell III, Harry Z. Rand, and Nanette C. Sexton, American Art at Harvard, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1972), cat. 7, ill.

American Portraits by John Singleton Copley: An Exhibition Organized for the Benefit of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, exh. cat., Hirschl & Adler Galleries (New York, 1975), cat. 24, ill.

Charles Montgomery and Patricia E. Kane, American Art: 1750-1800, Towards Independence, exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, CT, 1976), pp. 79, 277, cat. 12, ill. p. 78

Robert F. Perkins, Jr. and William J. Gavin, III, Boston Athenaeum Art Exhibition Index, 1827-1874, The Library of the Boston Athenaeum (Boston, MA, 1980), p. 39

Anne H. Vogel, American Colonial Portraits from the Fogg Art Museum and Harvard University, exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Museum (Mikwaukee, WI, 1983), n.p.

Florence M. Montgomery, Textiles in America, 1650-1870, W. W. Norton & Company (New York, NY, 1984), ill. p. 108

Wayne Craven, Colonial American Portraiture, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England, 1986), pp. 326-328, fig. 152

Kristin A. Mortimer and William G. Klingelhofer, Harvard University Art Museums: A Guide to the Collections, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press (Cambridge and New York, 1986), p. 182, cat. 207, ill.

Peter Conn, Literature in America: An Illustrated History, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge (UK), 1989), pp. 64-65, pl. 1

Sandra Grindlay, "Harvard's Portraits: An American Treasure", Harvard University Art Museums Review (Fall 1992), vol. II, no. 1, pp. 6-7, p. 6

Morrison Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1992), pp. 138-139, ill.

Wayne Craven, "Colonial American Portraiture: Iconography and Methodology", The Portrait in Eighteenth-Century America, ed. Ellen G. Miles, University of Delaware Press (Newark, 1993), p. 109, ill.

Timothy Anglin Burgard, American Art at Harvard: Cultures and Contexts, brochure, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1994), p. 11, cat. 50

Wayne Craven, American Art: History and Culture, Brown & Benchmark Publishers (Madison, WI, 1994), pp. 100-101, fig. 7.7

"Transforming Colonists into Goddesses and Sultans: John Singleton Copley, His Clients, and Their Studio Collaboration", American Art Journal (1995-1996), vol. 27, no. 1-2, pp. 4-37, p. 35, n. 14

Carrie Rebora and Paul J. Staiti, John Singleton Copley in America, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, 1995), pp. 10, 108, 148-149 ill., 222-224 ill.

Darrel Sewell, "Charles Willson Peale's Portraits of the Cadwalader Family" (1996), vol. 91, no. 384/385, pp. 24-34, p. 34, fig. 37

Henry Lie, Straus Center for Conservation Annual Report 1994-1995 (1996), p. 45

Kimberly Orcutt, Process and Paradox: The Historical Pictures of John Singleton Copley, exh. cat., Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2004), pp. 3-4, ill., 12

Harvard Art Museum, Harvard Art Museum Annual Report, ed. Thomas W. Lentz (Cambridge, 2007-2008), ill. p. 83

Judy Murray and Ray Williams, Engaging New Americans, Preparing for US Citizenship with the Harvard Art Museums, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 2012), ill. p. 6

Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. and Melissa Renn, American Paintings at Harvard, Volume One: Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels by Artists Born before 1826, Yale University Press (U.S.) and Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge and New Haven, 2014), pp. 23, 138-139, 463 cat. 86, ill.

Kimberly Orcutt, Power & Posterity: American Art at Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park, Pennsylvania, 2017), pp. 63, 128, repr. p. 112 (detail), and p.128 as fig. 49

Exhibition History

Boston Athenaeum Second Exhibition of Paintings, 1828, Boston Athenaeum, Boston, 05/01/1828 - 12/31/1828

Massachusetts Centennial Art Exhibition, Boston Art Club, Boston, 04/01/1876 - 04/30/1876

International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876, Philadelphia, PA, 05/10/1876 - 11/10/1876

The Paintings of John Singleton Copley, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 12/22/1936 - 02/14/1937

John Singleton Copley 1737-1815, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 02/01/1938 - 03/15/1938

Survey of American Painting, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 10/24/1940 - 12/15/1940

American Painting from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, Tate Britain, London, 06/01/1946 - 07/01/1946

Fifteen Fine Paintings, Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, 10/07/1948 - 11/07/1948

Likeness of America 1680-1820, Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, 01/01/1949 - 12/31/1949

From Colony to Nation, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 04/20/1949 - 06/19/1949

Four Boston Masters, Jewett Arts Center, Wellesley, 04/10/1959 - 05/11/1959; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 05/19/1959 - 06/26/1959

John Singleton Copley, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 09/18/1965 - 10/31/1965; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 11/20/1965 - 01/02/1966; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 01/22/1966 - 03/06/1966

Seventy-five Masterworks, Portland Art Museum, Portland, 12/12/1967 - 01/21/1968

American Art at Harvard, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/19/1972 - 06/18/1972

American Works of John Singleton Copley, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 12/03/1975 - 01/03/1976

American Arts in the Age of Independence 1750-1800, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 04/01/1976 - 05/23/1976; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 07/04/1976 - 09/26/1976

American Art: 1750-1800 Towards Independence, Yale University Art Gallery, 04/03/1976 - 05/23/1976; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 07/15/1976 - 09/26/1976

American Art at Harvard: Cultures and Contexts, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/01/1994 - 12/30/1994

John Singleton Copley in America, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 06/07/1995 - 08/27/1995; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 09/26/1995 - 01/07/1996; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, 02/04/1996 - 04/28/1996; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, 05/22/1996 - 08/25/1996

Process and Paradox: The Historical Pictures of John Singleton Copley, Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 05/08/2004 - 08/29/2004

Re-View: S424-426 Western Art from 1560 to 1900, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 08/16/2008 - 06/18/2011

Boston Taste, 1670 - 1970, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2013 - 03/30/2013

32Q: 2240 18th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Related Works

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